In open desert combat, regime’s air force ‘hunts down’ Islamic State

AMMAN: The Syrian Arab Army is making advances in its fight against the Islamic State by launching airstrikes in the open desert to reclaim territory in central Syria lost in 2015.

On Tuesday, fighting in the central Syrian desert concentrated around the city of al-Sukhna, an Islamic State (IS) stronghold, coveted by the regime since 2015 as the western gateway to Deir e-Zor province.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) battered IS positions 7km southwest of al-Sukhna with airstrikes on Tuesday, one day after capturing more than three kilometers of territory.

Unlike urban warfare, Islamic State fighters have little place to shelter in the open air of Syria’s largely flat and expansive central desert.

“Airstrikes allow us to take advantage of the desert terrain in order to hunt down and destroy Daesh,” a Syrian Arab Army spokesman who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Regime ground forces have captured hundreds of square kilometers of oil fields, phosphorus mines and water sources in Syria’s eastern half in an ongoing two-month campaign to drive the Islamic State out of the desert region.

The regime’s offensive began near Palmyra, 60km southwest of al-Sukhna, and aims to reach the capital of Deir e-Zor province, now encircled by the Islamic State.

SAA forces are currently advancing in the direction of Deir e-Zor city across multiple fronts in the sparsely populated central and eastern Syrian desert. But they are not alone in their quest to reach Deir e-Zor. In May, the regime encircled American-backed rebel forces at their a-Tanf base in southwestern Syria, thereby preventing opposing rebel forces from reaching Deir e-Zor province without a direct confrontation with the SAA.

The United States has subsequently downplayed expectations of reaching Deir e-Zor city before the Assad regime. When pro-regime forces encroached on US-backed allies near the a-Tanf base, US CENTCOM issued the Assad regime and its allies an ultimatum: “The continued armed and hostile presence of forces inside the de-confliction zone is unacceptable and threatening to Coalition forces…[and] Coalition forces are prepared to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone.”

 A pro-Assad soldier aims an anti-tank missile system in the eastern Homs desert in February. Photo courtesy of Stringer/AFP.

That tone has since considerably changed. When asked about the presence of pro-regime forces within the de-escalation zone on June 29, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon acknowledged that the forces have “been there over the course of the last two weeks…and they are facing away from our forces.”

CENTCOM’s attention at the moment, he acknowledged, is not on Deir e-Zor.

“Right now the focus is on Raqqa,” he told reporters via teleconference from Baghdad on June 29.

“We'll have to see what happens after Raqqa and where there are still ISIS fighters that remain,” he added.

If the SAA captures al-Sukhna, there will be little standing between them and Deir e-Zor city save for 120km of flat and open desert. For the Islamic State, al-Sukhna is the last and largest line of defense.

Despite Monday’s breakthrough advances, fighting on Tuesday returned to its usual tenor of a bloody stalemate, with little territory changing hands.

Multiple lines of dug-in Islamic State fortifications 7km outside of al-Sukhna in addition to “thousands of landmines and IEDs” are preventing the army from rapidly advancing despite its firepower superiority, said the army spokesman.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.